Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

George Lucas' American Graffiti

Where were you in '62?

The poster says it all.
A few weeks ago as my wife and I were holed up in a hotel room in Cleveland for a night, she randomly clicked on a TV movie she'd never seen--George Lucas' American Graffiti. I'd seen it once or twice when it first came out in 1973 and long admired it as a longstanding classic of American filmmaking. It took me only a few minutes in watching it again for the first time in about forty years, to realize it was a film I dearly loved. Though not George Lucas' first film, it was his first successful film. Shot on a budget of a "mere" $777.000, it has turned out to be one of the highest grossing low-budget films ever made--well over $200 million in box office gross and home video sales, not including merchandising. Yet when Lucas was searching for financing for the film he was turned down by United Artists, 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, MGM, Warner Bros., and Paramount before Universal Studios reluctantly agreed to take the risk ($4,369,471 in today's dollars). Lucas' previous film, THX 1138, a brainy, sci-fi epic, had been an unmitigated flop. Even though it had been produced by none other than Francis Ford Coppola (who also eventually produced American Graffiti), neither name carried the weight in Hollywood at the time to warrant much confidence in a teenaged cruising film with a cast of unknown kids (most of whom were no longer teenagers).

Set in Modesto, California, most of the filming took place in nearby Petaluma.
George Lucas before Star Wars.
"Where were you in '62?" became the film's nostalgic catch phrase. I was a junior in high school. Though a year younger than the recent high school graduates around whom the story revolves, I was living the cruising life, decked out in tight, white, peg-leg Levi's, a white, long-sleeve shirt (sleeves rolled up, of course), white socks and white, slip-on sneakers. My friends and I cruised the streets of the county seat, McConnelsville, Ohio, looking for girls at a time when gas was thirty cents a gallon and a hamburger was twenty-five cents at the local Dairy Queen (our less-futuristic equivalent to Mel's Drive-in). I was more or less the equivalent of the film's Terry "The Toad" Fields, played by Charles Martin Smith. American Graffiti documented the first wave of the "Baby Boom" generation coming of age, before the Vietnam war, before the Kennedy assassination, at a time when "flower power" was the effect of a fresh-cut bouquet on your girlfriend.

The American Graffiti cast. Most were unknowns. Some remained that way.
Today we'd refer to American Graffiti as having an "all-star" cast, but with the exception of "Ronny" Howard (Opie from Mayberry, R.F.D.), and the largely background presence of the popular DJ, Wolfman Jack, no one had ever heard of any of the other talented cast members. Cindy Williams (as Laurie) had yet to meet Laverne or play Shirley. Richard Dreyfus had yet to encounter a certain marine denizen with huge Jaws. Susanne Somers (in a cameo role as the blond in the T-Bird) had yet to join TV's Three's Company. Twelve-year-old Mackenzie Phillips had yet to take things One Day at a Time. Harrison Ford, back when he was still a carpenter, turned thirty during filming. Mark Hamill, of Luke Skywalker fame, tried out for a part but didn't make it. Only Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith were actually teenagers at the time.

Pinstripes and chrome, it appeared to be moving even when standing still.
There were two other major stars of American Graffiti, responsible as much as any other factors in making the film the iconic landmark of moviemaking from that era--the cars and the music. Until the 1950s, teenagers could seldom afford their own cars. Even then, they were often of the "homemade" variety gleaned from the best the local junkyard had to offer (much like John Milner's yellow hotrod roadster). By the early 1960s, however, middle-class kids, with good grades and a good job could often afford an older, breathtaking cruise-mobile such as Steve (Ron Howard) Bolander's sporty, white, '59 Chevrolet Impala (above), which even today causes me to drool in envy. Then there was the almost ghostly presence of Susanne Sommers' 1956 white Thunderbird (below) which visually serves much the same purpose as Wolfman Jack it tying together the separate, angst-filled vignettes of the four teenaged friends enjoying the brief, fragile good-life of the early 1960s.

Is she real, or just a figment of Curt Henderson's (Richard Dreyfuss) imagination.
American Graffiti has no original score. It does have some forty-one top hits from the era starting with the booming Rock Around the Clock in the opening segment to Goodnight Sweetheart as Curt boards the plane to take him off to college and the rest of his life. The Beach Boys supply the music for the closing credits with their All Summer Long. Lucas paid some $90,000 for the rights to the musical nostalgia that makes American Graffiti as much a joy to listen to as watch. And when there was no music, Lucas used its absence along with sound effects to create some of the film's most dramatic moments. Though nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Candy Clark (below). It won none, though it was the recipient of numerous other international film awards. Enjoy the two clips at the bottom.

Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith as the worldly Debbie and the nerdy "Toad"

An era of innocence? Perhaps not, but lots of fun all the same.

The Trailer

The Water Balloon fight--


No comments:

Post a Comment